CANADA

Shunning the innocent

An HIV-positive toddler is denied day care

BARRY CAME March 7 1994
CANADA

Shunning the innocent

An HIV-positive toddler is denied day care

BARRY CAME March 7 1994

Shunning the innocent

CANADA

An HIV-positive toddler is denied day care

BARRY CAME

Like many young children, Jessica Dos Santos resembles her mother. She has the same blond hair, the same oval face and the same steady gaze in her wide, brown eyes. But the Montreal youngster inherited more than her mother’s looks when she was born two years ago. She carries another legacy in her bloodstream—the deadly virus that causes AIDS. Her mother, MarieHelena Dos Santos, passed the HIV infection to Jessica during her pregnancy. And that has transformed a happy little girl into an outcast, shunned by the fearful parents of her playmates.

Jessica’s problems began early in February at the privately run Garderie les Petits Lutins—the Little Elves Day Care Centre—in southwest Montreal. Curious about the clear liquid medication that Jessica required every six hours, the centre’s director asked the girl’s mother to identify it. And when the director discovered that Jessica was taking AZT, the drug used to combat HIV infection, the centre asked the child to leave.

Public health officials were powerless. “We cannot legally force a day care to accept a child,” says Sylvie Charbonneau, a represen-

tative for the Montreal ree gional health board. “There’s § really nothing we can do but " try to educate and inform.”

In an effort to change the decision, board officials invited the centre’s staff, as ö well as parents of the 60 f children regularly cared for there, to a series of information sessions. Dr. Richard Massé, an expert on infectious disease, described the risk of a healthy child catching the disease from an HIV-positive child as being “weak to minimal.” Under questioning, however, he conceded that “there is no honest doctor who can tell you the risk is zero.” That was enough to convince most of the parents to support the day care’s expulsion of Jessica. More than half of them said they would pull their children out of the centre if Jessica was allowed back in.

Quebec health authorities are well aware of public fears about HIV infection. “This is a battle that is going to be fought over the long term,” says Massé. “People have to be educated.” Until that happens, the province will

step in with some money. It announced last week that it will compensate any day care centre that loses clients by accepting HIVpositive children, reimbursing lost funds for up to a year.

As for Jessica, her mother has found a private family willing to take her for the three days a week she used to spend at the Little Elves centre. “We’re going to give her some tender loving care until people forget her face,” says the woman who offered her home, asking that she not be identified. “When all this blows over, maybe we’ll be able to find another day care where Jessica can be happy again.”

BARRY CAME in Montreal